Braves' rotation gaining clarity just in time

September 5, 2020 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried (54) delivers a pitch during the first inning in a MLB baseball game at Truist Park on Saturday, September 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
September 5, 2020 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried (54) delivers a pitch during the first inning in a MLB baseball game at Truist Park on Saturday, September 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Ideally, by the time an NFL season kicks off in mid-September, a contending MLB team is not still trying to solve its rotation. But in this case, late is truly better than never.

As the season winds down, the Braves might be assembling a major-league quality rotation. This week’s news will center on Cole Hamels, who’s scheduled to debut Wednesday in Baltimore, and Max Fried, who’s set to return Friday in New York.

The incoming duo, paired with the ascending Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, creates rotation clarity not a moment too soon. The Braves have 12 regular-season games remaining after Monday’s opener against the Orioles.

“Those are guys we hoped would carry most of that starting load,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Now we’re finally getting them back and that’s a really good thing.”

Stability has eluded this group. The Braves' 11 different starters this season have accrued a 5.95 ERA, third worst in the majors. Starters covering five or more innings is rare; quality starts are even rarer. Braves starters have thrown 199-2/3 innings, 24th fewest among teams.

Fingers are often pointed at the front office, but nobody could’ve accounted for the group’s decimation. Hamels, on a one-year deal, was supposed to provide experience and stability. Instead, shoulder and triceps injuries made him a non-factor until this week.

Mike Soroka tore his Achilles in his third start. Felix Hernandez decided against playing during the first weekend of re-opened camp. The Braves pulled the plugs on Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb for ineffectiveness. Wright struggled before he was optioned to the alternate training site, and Touki Toussaint, who started Monday, likewise lost his regular spot.

Amid all the bad, Fried was the beacon of hope every fifth day. He had a 1.98 ERA across nine starts (50 innings) and looked like a legitimate Cy Young frontrunner until his latest start, when he exhibited a decline in velocity and wound up requiring a stint on the 10-day injured list with a muscle spasm in his lumbar spine.

Manager Brian Snitker said Fried is feeling healthy and could’ve returned even sooner than the weekend. The Braves are off Thursday between Hamels' and Fried’s scheduled outings, which gives the latter additional rest.

“If we didn’t have Cole in the stable, he probably could’ve come off (the IL) Wednesday and started,” Snitker said. “As it is, it’s not going to hurt him to pitch on Friday.”

Wright earned his first win Sunday, pitching six innings and defeating Max Scherzer and the Nationals. Anderson, meanwhile, hasn’t looked like a rookie. He has a 1.64 ERA across his first four starts, pitching seven scoreless innings in his most recent appearance.

If Fried resembles his season-long form, and Hamels provides some semblance of steadiness, the Braves' rotation is trending upward. Wright’s evident growth makes a colossal difference, and through two starts since rejoining the rotation, there’s plenty reason to be further optimistic.

Following the Braves' off day, they’ll have 10 games left. They seem to have a four-man group figured out for that span, which is more than they could say for any prior stretch of the season.